The seventeenth-century preacher Thomas Jacomb called Romans 8 “the grand charter of believers.” It’s like the U.S. Bill of Rights, listing all that’s ours because of Jesus Christ. It begins in verse 1 with “no condemnation” and ends in verse 39 with “no separation.” That’s assurance! Here’s the list of the blessings we’re certain and confident of having as a result of our beautiful and wonderful triune God’s work for us. Look at how our assurance is rooted in the love of God the Father for us: “for God has done what the law . . . could not do . . . by sending his own Son” (Rom. 8:3, emphasis added). This certainty is accomplished in the work of the eternal Son of the Father, who came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in which “he condemned sin in the flesh” upon the cross. This confidence is experienced in the Spirit’s work in our lives (the Holy Spirit is mentioned nineteen times in Rom. 8). This chapter is all about assurance. In this first of three articles, I’d like to exposit and apply verses 1–3, where Paul proclaims assurance as a Christ-centered reality.
Affirmations of Assurance (Rom. 8:1)
It’s for Sinners. Whenever we see a “therefore” in Scripture, we have to ask, What’s it “there for”? This one points back to Romans 7, which says that sinners who are declared righteous and acceptable to God are still sinners. Imagine a company that comes under new management, with new direction, new purpose, and a new plan. Yet the old workers, who often frustrate the new management’s plans, remain. This tension is expressed when Paul says, “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25). To struggling sinners, he says “therefore” to transition to realities that are true of believers even though they remain sinners. We’re not under the condemnation of the guilt (Rom. 3:21–5:21) or the practical power of sin (Rom. 6:1–7:25), although we still struggle with sin.
It’s a Present Reality. “There is therefore now no condemnation.” “Now” shakes the foundation of all man-made religion. All religions that base acceptance and assurance on the efforts or partial efforts of human beings miss this. For example, Islam is a religion of giving oneself to the will of Allah, who may or may not accept you into paradise when you die. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent said that apart from a special revelation from God, which is given to almost no person on this side of heaven, “no one can know with a certainty of faith . . . that he has obtained the grace of God.” The fact that we can have assurance now despite our sins is what makes true Christianity unique from all other religions.
The question is, What does Paul mean by “no condemnation”? “Condemnation” refers to the final judgment that awaits all mankind on the last day of human history. That final judgment has already been executed on Jesus. Paul says this in Romans 8:34: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Note that list: death, resurrection, and ascension. Why is there “no condemnation” for the believer “now”? Because Jesus died a death of condemnation. Why is there “no condemnation” for the believer “now”? Because Jesus rose again, leaving condemnation behind in the tomb. Why is there “no condemnation” for the believer “now”? Because Jesus is now interceding—not against the condemning anger of God but against the finite condemnations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. This is why “now” assures not only of no condemnation in this life but also of no condemnation ever.
It’s through Faith. “But how do I, a sinner, find the assurance that I’m accepted by God now?” Jesus has written a will with the names of believers in it, listing our inheritance of an untold fortune. But it’s one thing to hear about it and another to get our hands on it. There’s “no condemnation” for “those who are in Christ Jesus.” To say “in” is to say that we are legally in Christ. Just as we were legally in Adam and under God’s condemnation before we came to faith in Jesus, Paul says that by faith alone we are now legally in Christ, justified and under no condemnation. To say “in” is also to say that we are in Christ vitally. Jesus is the vine; we’re the branches drawing vitality from him (John 15:1–7). When Paul says “in Christ,” he’s saying that “those” are united to Him by the bond of faith. As a man and a woman promise “to forsake all others” and “to have and to hold” each other in marriage, Jesus commits to sinners and we to Him by faith. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song 6:3). Faith is the means by which we come to enter into acceptance by God as righteous in His sight and experience assurance.
Briefly note two things about the phrase “those who are in Christ Jesus.” First, it’s a limiting phrase. Only “those” who have faith “in Christ Jesus” enjoy justification. If we don’t believe, then the will with the wonderful inheritance is not ours. Second, it’s an indiscriminate phrase. In Paul’s time, one of the big issues was how Jews and gentiles (non-Jews) were to relate to each other. As far as Jesus is concerned, those who believe in Him are accepted by God right here, right now, regardless of their ethnicity, skin color, gender, or socioeconomic status. That’s not because of faith itself, or faith in faith, or even the amount or quantity of faith. Faith in Christ, and only faith in Christ, grants this assurance that we’re accepted by God because of Christ. The object of our faith is what saves us, not faith in itself, and faith saves only because it unites us to the Savior. This means:
- Jesus is the One who takes the sinful and makes them righteous.
- Jesus is the One who takes the unclean and makes them clean.
- Jesus is the One who takes the orphaned and makes them sons and daughters.
- Jesus is the One who takes the naked and gives them clothes.
- Jesus is the One who takes the enemy and makes them friends.
- Jesus is the One who takes the condemned and makes them innocent.
- Jesus is the One who takes the dead and makes them alive.
- Jesus is the One who finds the lost and makes them found.
Sinner, do you believe in this Jesus? There’s now no condemnation for you.
Reasons for Assurance (Rom. 8:2–3)
Verses 2–3 are like watching a time-lapse video of a rose blooming. If you try to watch a rose bloom in real time, it’s not impressive. But when you watch it happen in time lapse, you see the detail of each petal opening up to reveal yet another. Each verse here is like a petal opening up. Paul goes on to give us the reasons we’ve passed from a state of condemnation to a state of justification twice using “for” or “because.” John Calvin said this word signifies a “proof of the former sentence.” He doesn’t just tell us what we’re in Christ; he tells us why. There’s no condemnation for the believer in Christ because “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).
Our Past Slavery to Sin and Death. Liberty presupposes slavery. That’s why Paul says we’ve been “set free . . . from the law of sin and death.” Paul uses “law” in two senses. With the “Spirit of life” or Holy Spirit he uses it ironically. With “sin and death” he uses it literally, as he did in chapter 7 (e.g., Rom. 7:1). Paul refers to the law as “the law of sin and death” because it’s a powerful instrument. First Corinthians 15:56 says, “The power of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” The law powerfully charges with sin, and sin leads to death. There once were two unregenerate teenage boys—I can neither confirm nor deny that I was one of them—going through a neighborhood during trick-or-treating to destroy jack-o-lanterns. They heard the siren of a police car. They said to themselves, “The law is after us.” As they thought they were safe, a car pulled up and its occupant asked, “Did you think you could outrun the law?” When we speak this way, we mean the power to arrest, condemn, and punish lawbreakers.
Our past slavery to sin meant that we were in bondage to “sin” because of the law. We were in slavery to the guilt imputed to us from Adam. We were in slavery to the corruption of sin that was produced in us by that first sin. We were in slavery to the actual sins we ourselves committed. It’s this practical slavery to actual sin that Paul particularly has in view. In Romans 7:5 he said, “While we were living in the flesh”—our unregenerate state—“our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Because of our sinfulness, the law is only able to show us our sins and to stir up even more (Rom. 7:8, 11). None of this is the fault of the law itself, of course. It is the fault of sin, which lays hold of the law to incite us to further sin. Apart from grace, when sinners meet the law, they are stirred up to further sin.
Our past slavery to sin meant that we were in bondage to “death” because of the law. The law’s original curse that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17) continues: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The law condemned us with its verdict of death when we were outside of Christ. Death in this life is the separation of the soul from the body; in the life to come it’s separation from hope of receiving the love and grace of God and instead experiencing only His justice and wrath. Richard Sibbes described death in this way: “All the clothes I, and flowers you, put upon a dead body cannot make it but a stinking carcass; so all the moral virtues, and all the honors in this world put upon a man out of Christ, it makes him not a spiritual living soul; he is but loathsome carrion, a dead carcass, in the sight of God, and of all that have the Spirit of God.”
Our Present Freedom from Sin and Death. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus.” Go back to the meaning of the word “the law of the Spirit of life.” Paul is using it ironically. The Spirit of God is not literally a law. But in explaining how Jesus and the law related, Paul speaks tongue in cheek, saying, “What law set you free? The law of the Spirit.” This is illustrated by the contrast between speaking of the law or commandment twenty-nine times in chapter 7 and speaking of the Spirit nineteen times in chapter 8. Paul is not contrasting law and gospel absolutely; he’s contrasting them in terms of how we come to be righteous before God. The Holy Spirit sets us free from the law and its twofold bondage to “sin and death” in a twofold way. The Spirit sets us free from our bondage to the “law of sin.” When we came to Christ in faith, we “died to sin” (Rom. 6:1), and our “old man”—inherited from Adam—“was crucified so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). The Holy Spirit also sets us free from our bondage to the “law of . . . death.” Here’s one of the most personal comforts from this text to me. Do you ever sit back, look at your life, and say: “How am I justified? Look at all my sins. Look at how little progress I’m making in the Christian life.” Here’s the comfort: Paul’s not saying, “You used to be a sinner, but now you’re perfect.” If he did, an imperfect person like me wouldn’t have hope. He’s saying: “You used to be under the guilt and pollution of sin, now you’re set free from its guilt. Its pollution still remains in thought, word, and deed. But there is therefore now no condemnation for you.”
The Powerlessness of the Law. “What the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do . . .” (Rom. 8:3). Why? “Is the law sin,” as Paul asks in Romans 7:7? No. The law is “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12). Paul’s saying that the law isn’t the problem, you and I are. The problem is the “flesh”—our sinful “nature” (NIV). So many well-meaning Christians just don’t grasp the sinfulness of sin and the depths of sin. This affects how churches worship, for they think that if they can just put on a good enough show, the unsaved will believe. This affects how churches preach, for they think that if they focus on life skills and contemporary issues, the unsaved will pour into the kingdom. This doesn’t take into account the depravity and fallenness of humanity. When you take the law of God and add our sinfulness, nothing good can come. This is why Paul says “the law . . . could not do” the work needed to take us from condemnation and into acceptance with God. If you watched the 2012 Olympics, you might remember U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman. While watching her performance, the commentators told us how every routine has certain rules that you have to hit to reach a certain score. When her routine on the uneven bars was over, they replayed it, and then the video cut away to her parents. They were cheering for their daughter, yelling, talking out loud as if she could hear them, and they were even moving along with her as if remote controlling her on the bars. But no matter how much direction, commanding, pointing out, even cheering “You can do it,” we get from the law, the law can’t make us do what needs to be done. Thomas Manton once said of our sins and the law’s powerlessness to change us that “this is an evil not to be remedied by instruction, but inclination.”
The Powerfulness of God. But there’s good news in Romans 8:3: “What the law . . . could not do, God has done”! As the hymn writer said,
Let us love and sing and wonder
Let us praise the Savior’s name
He has hushed the law’s loud thunder
He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame.
“What the law . . . could not do” to take us from a state of condemnation to a state of justification, “God has done”! God took the initiative to free us from a bondage we could never free ourselves from. I remember when I came to realize this. What I couldn’t do, God did. I thank Him every day that He did!
How Has God Done . . . What the Law Could Not Do? “. . . by sending His own Son.” When God wanted to accomplish once and for all “what the law could not do,” He didn’t send merely a prophet to point out the way; He sent His eternal Son. When there’s a political problem between two nations, presidents don’t just send a low-level ambassador; they send the secretary of state or a former president. This reveals the seriousness of the problem but also the powerful solution. In a greater way, God sent the Son whom He as Father loved from all eternity to solve the problem of our sins: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
How Did He Send His Own Son?The eternal Son came “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Paul doesn’t say God sent His Son “in sinful flesh”; that would mean Jesus was a sinner like you and me. Instead, Paul very specifically says “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” This phrase means that Jesus took on a true human nature, but without sin. Charles Hodge said Jesus came “in a nature like to our sinful nature, but not itself sinful.” Jesus was therefore susceptible to pain and weariness and sorrow. He could be touched with a sense of our infirmities. He was tempted in all points as we are.
Why Was the Son Sent in This Way? “ For sin,” meaning as a sin offering. Forty-four of the fifty-four uses of this phrase in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) mean “sin offering.” Why did he offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin when He wasn’t a sinner? He offered Himself for us. Why couldn’t God just forgive us or send His Son to tell us that we’re forgiven? God is just, and He must punish our sins. Therefore, we must satisfy His justice and pay our debt. But that’s impossible for us because the law that tells us God requires perfection to enter His presence has been “weakened by [our] flesh.” No amount of blood of bulls and goats can take away sins. In His grace, God came to the rescue by sending One who was sinless, who was able to obey the law, and who in His love would offer Himself for others. God sent His Son to break the power of sin by Himself being condemned as a sin offering. As Leviticus 4 says, hands were laid on animals given as old covenant sin offerings to impute the sins of the people to these offerings, which were then offered on the altar. In like manner to these old covenant offerings, which were but shadows of the real thing, our sins were imputed to Christ, and He bore them on the cross. His blood was taken into the Holy Place and sprinkled. His body was taken outside the holy camp. The punishment that humanity justly deserved was taken on by the incarnate Son: “For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
As a Sin Offering, What Did the Son Do?“He condemned sin in the flesh.” If you know the story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you know that Edmund belonged to the White Witch. That was the law of the deep magic. How did Aslan free Edmund from his bondage to the Witch? Aslan himself took Edmund’s place and was punished for Edmund’s crime. Paul tells us here that Jesus “condemned sin in the flesh.” Do you see what this means? There’s “no condemnation” for us (Rom. 8:1) because God condemned our sins in Christ on the cross. As another hymn puts it:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
If you don’t know Jesus Christ today, there’s hope for the worst sinner. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done to break God’s laws; there’s One who has kept all of them—Jesus. It doesn’t matter what sin you’ve committed; there’s One who’s been punished for every kind of sin—Jesus. Give yourself to Him and He’ll accept you right now. Brothers and sisters, there’s assurance in your ongoing battle with sin, lust, anger, pride, and spiritual depression. It’s not found in the law. It’s not found in you. It’s found in Jesus. He’s the center of our assurance. Do you believe Him? Then rejoice and be glad that you of all people are under no condemnation.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published October 20, 2021 and is part of a series on assurance. Next post.